If you commit a crime in Iowa, and you’re African American, your chance of going to jail is 14 times greater than if you are Caucasian. That’s the worst percentage of racially disproportionate incarceration in any state in the nation, according to the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project.
This disparity is not new, but it’s growing. It was noticed 20 years ago when 20 percent of the inmates in Iowa’s prisons were African American, even though they made up only two percent of the state’s overall population.
And, although Iowa advocates have been fighting to understand and lower the disparity in the past two decades, the disproportion has inched up to 24%.
The inequity of treatment, besides being unjust, has additional consequences for Iowa’s African-Americans. And understanding the problem’s cause is tricky.
Harvard Law School’s Civil Rights Project study called “A School to Prison Pipeline” contends that prison is the outcome of a self-perpetuating circle of injustice that also includes schools and juvenile courts.
The cycle goes something like this: African-American children who get into trouble in school are more likely than other students to get detentions and long expulsions.
The long expulsions make it harder for children to return to school and keep up with their studies. Only half the kids receiving this kind of punishment actually graduate from high school.
High school drop-outs find it difficult to get jobs, and many turn to gangs and non-violent crime to survive.
At the same time, 18-year-olds who come through the Child Welfare or Foster Care systems in Iowa are at high risk for showing up in the juvenile justice system, and within one year of outgrowing these services, 50% of them are homeless or in prison.
The Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning found that African American youth are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be placed in secure detention. They’re also 40 percent less likely to be sent to community-based programs that could help turn the offenders around.
The longer a person is incarcerated, the harder it is for them to blend back into society after release. And, the Sentencing Project says people with felony convictions can be denied access to public housing, employment, student loans for higher education, and even welfare.
If they return to selling illegal drugs, lower-income drug dealers are more likely to be out in the open, or ‘on the streets’, and are easier for law enforcement to discover.
Families with a wage earner in prison not only lose the income and benefits, they also become separated from their loved one, especially if drugs or other federal offenses are involved.
Federal prisons are located out-of-state, and most low-income families have trouble traveling to visit, or affording long-distance communications.
So a child in that family may have disruptions, may go on Child Welfare, and may have trouble in school. Which brings us full-circle to the schools - and the disparities in rates of detentions and expulsions.
Iowans are still studying the many pieces of the “School to Prison Pipeline,” that result in the racial imbalance in Iowa’s prisons and jails.
But advocates across the state agree that the breaking down of that pipeline should be one of our top priorities.